Thoughts on S60

reflections on the most popular mobile operating system worldwide

Cumulative N97 Review: A month in the making

with 29 comments

I’m exceptionally surprised how much time I’ve spent with the N97 considering how set I was against not owning one. I bought a white one for $560 running v10, only to turn around and sell it for a decent profit a week later (the profit decidedly being much more important than dealing with the POS that it was on v10). Then instead of blindly comparing it to other devices I have never used, I picked myself up a used E90 and a pair of iPhone 3GS’s (the latter turning into even larger bits of profit once sold). Less than a week later, I received a call from Katie at WOM World for the opportunity to travel the country, beating the hell out of the N97 in each of the 4 cities we visited for the past 3 weeks. If there’s any group of people who thoroughly explored every single aspect of the N97, it would have to be the four of us. This is my experience.

I don’t see any sense in going over the media functions of the device since they are largely unchanged from previous devices. Everything from the music player to the camera is almost identical to the performance of previous devices. Instead, I thought it more constructive to focus on the things that really stand out.

Screen

As I found out very early into the trip, it is nowhere near as durable as I was led to believe. On the recommendations of Dan and several internet sources to remove the screen protector, I had managed to scratch the screen right in the center after the first night with it off. What perplexes me is that I didn’t have anything else in my pocket that night and it hasn’t seen nearly as bad a scratch since (though several noticeable smaller ones have formed). The scratches are difficult to see, but when I do see them, they drive me absolutely nuts.

I was really impressed with how well the phone and screen held up in extreme conditions. It was raining pretty hard during the scavenger hunt that took all day. After what I would consider to be pretty heavy water damage, not one of the 4 of us had any problems resulting from the abuse.

Per my previous post about the difference between resistive and capacitive screens, all of those differences still apply. For my personal usage, I could care less whether or not the screen was capacitive or resistive (shy of the durability issue). After all of the usage the N97s saw on this trip, its resistive screen wasn’t an issue at all. George was the only one who bothered to use the included stylus at all, but I still only rarely caught him using it. The screen is very finger friendly and sensitive enough for all types of usage.

Keyboard

I originally gave the N97 a lot of heat for how poor the feedback was on the original white unit I purchased. After all this intense usage, I have now grown very used to it and will definitely miss it moving to other devices. Like any keyboard, it takes some getting used to that can’t be done over the course of a few hours or even a few days. The space bar placement actually feels more natural to the right than it would in the center, the symbol key combinations start to come naturally the more you use it, and the smaller keys aren’t a problem at all.

My only remaining complaints are that the shift key placement makes it difficult for selecting text, even with two hands, and the tactile feedback is still not up to par with keyboards on other devices. For the latter reason, I still strongly recommend testing the keyboard to see if it will work for you or not before buying it.

Battery Life

From the white N97 I owned before the trip to the black pair of N97’s lent to me during the trip, NONE of them had even decent battery life. Even whilst observing all of the typical power-saving tips for S60 devices, each of our N97s would burn through 2 batteries per day at least and up to 4 on some heavier than normal days. Having brought my E90 and N810 and Andrew bringing his E71 (all using the same BP-4L battery) was the only reason the device was able to survive this trip at all (in addition to the backup N97 WOM World lent us). If conserving battery life was one of the reasons the older ARM11 processor architecture was chosen instead of the newer Cortex A8 architechture, then they made a HUGE mistake.

It was said several times on the trip that we can’t expect to properly judge battery life because we were using these phones harder than anyone typically would. While I agree that we were using them exceptionally hard, that concept fails to factor in the dispersion of device usage over the four of us. During heavier activities and challenges, it became the norm for us to assign a specific task to each device to avoid needlessly emptying a single device very quickly. Specifically, we did this during the Presidential Walk/Ride where George was responsible for capturing media, I was responsible for navigation with Nokia Maps and Google Maps, and Andrew was responsible for only running Sports Tracker. Should a normal person be interested in using the N97 like we did on their own tour of any given city with only one battery, it would be simply impossible.

General Performance Speed

Quickly recapping the N97s hardware,

-434mhz CPU (without hardware acceleration)
-128mb of RAM (about 42mb available on boot)
-56mb of available internal memory (NOT the 32gb mass storage)

It’s also worth noting the specifications of the N95-3 that launched in September of 2007.

-334mhz CPU (with hardware acceleration)
-128mb of RAM (about 80mb available on boot)
-130mb of available internal memory (independent of any storage card)

Even after a critical firmware update, the N97 still needs a lot of work to make better use of the meager internal hardware it’s using. My first impression of the N97 when I started using it for the first time was how much slower it was than I was used to on other devices I had used recently, and that hasn’t changed. It still feels very slow compared to even the aged E90 with its quick application buttons. The only thing that really impressed me was how much faster the browser was with all of the Flash and javascript elements turned on.

During the trip, it was a common occurrence for our N97s to require battery pulls, restarts, and continuously reopen applications that closed in the background due to a lack of RAM over the course of the trip. At its worst, I was forced to switch over to the spare N97 because the instability had gotten so out of control. I was very much reminded of the old days of S60 when devices had less than 20mb of available RAM. There were several times where I hesitated opening the camera or navigating away from a large webpage to respond to a text message since doing so would usually close the larger app I was running in the background.  On top of that, the N97 seems to handle an overload in a “panic mode” if you will. If the device begins to lock up due to too many thing being open, it frantically tries to close everything to get things working again, whereas older devices would just restart. Between the two options, I don’t think it matters either way. Doubling the RAM would have been the real solution here.

Giving those issues a pass, they pale in comparison to the low internal memory. Having only 56mb available, EVERY app needs to be installed to the mass storage for things to run smoothly, which also means those apps won’t be usable when connected to a PC in mass storage mode. Even so, there are some applications that force themselves to install onto the small internal memory and having too many of them quickly leads to some intense stability problems. I was forced to uninstall and reinstall Nokia Email a couple times when I was attempting to install the application updates to Nokia Maps and Ovi Contacts (I didn’t even bother with Ngage). I found myself constantly struggling to maintain 10mb of available memory by uninstalling widgets I will never use, clearing the cache in the browser after every session, and deleting larger emails with attachments I would have liked to keep. This issue also disabled any of us from sending a large file over Bluetooth to each others N97s because it would arrive in the inbox, also part of the internal memory by default.

Oh and themes? Forget about them. You can either install them to the mass storage and have your N97 change to a default theme when connected in mass storage mode (buggy on its own) or install them on the internal memory and perpetuate the stability issues. Pick your poison.

To put a final nail in the performance coffin, I tried to use the N97 with one of the TV-out cables from an older device and the SU-8W BT keyboard using the Nokia Wireless Keyboard application to show off all my pictures and videos to my girlfriend. I say tried because I was able to scroll through about 30 items or so before the phone became extremely slow and unresponsive, disabling me from moving to the next image without having to wait tens of seconds in between each. It was salt in the open wound of dealing with all of its other issues throughout the entire trip. I was able to finally get it to work, however, by connecting the N97 to my desktop in mass storage mode and use my PS3 to browse the contents with PS3MediaServer.

Misc.

With all of that said, hope certainly should not be lost. For people who anticipate using their devices lightly or just more patiently than I do, the performance issues I faced may not rear their ugly heads nearly as often. This is something to keep in mind though long before you spend $600 on a high-end device. If you find yourself using the hell out of your devices, the N97 might not be the one for you.

To try to shed a bit more light on this review, one of the things the N97 certainly excelled at was being a mobile blogging tool. With WordMobi properly installed, it was impressively easy for me to throw up some quick posts at the end of the day, complete with links and images taken with the 5mp camera. It’s success in this area is hinged strongly on the robustness of WordMobi, the hardware QWERTY, and the ability to shoot and edit photos right on the device. I can confidently say that someone could very easily run their own WordPress blog with the N97 alone. As I’m typing this into WordMobi on my E90 (another exceptional blogging device, save the camera), I am worried that the lack of a hardware QWERTY keyboard on the i8910 will make a huge difference as compared.

Conclusion

What saddens me further is that even after all of that, I know there are dozens of other instances where the N97 completely fell flat that I just can’t remember. After each of us got ourselves more and more used to the N97, a lot of the members of our group became more interested in other devices we found on the trip. Andrew was considering picking up an N79, Matt and I both were struck again by the appeal of the N95-3/4, and after having used Ewan’s i8910 (lent to ) at the Mobile Camp in San Francisco, I was almost immediately sold. There was even a feeling of despair when I had to put it down, knowing that I had to continue to use the N97 for the rest of the trip instead. I think George said it best though when trying to describe the N97 experience: “A combination of new and old technologies with no refinements to make the device complete, a Frankenphone”. I completely agree.

If you considered the N95 revolutionary for 2007, you can say the same for the N97 in 2009, except it’s revolving backwards. The N97 bites off a bit more than it can chew, which is very unfortunate considering the potential this device really has. If it kept all of its current hardware features, received a solid firmware update to stabilize it, and was built with proper internal hardware to perform all of its boasted features properly, it would have been an absolute knockout. It its current incarnation though, it doesn’t live up to the flagship title it has been given. Anyone interested would be wise to wait for it to hit a $400 price point and receive a couple more firmware updates (that is, if you haven’t noticed any of the other devices on the market).

It was mentioned today that the N97 performs overall much better under normal, everyday conditions than it does as a powerhouse of constant multitasking and media consumption. I completely agree with this, but if that’s the case, it should also share a normal, everyday price instead of a the flagship premium. Currently the best price is Dell.com for $529.99+tax and shipping, which I still think is too high.

For me, I have an 8gb i8910 on its way to be delivered today. If it doesn’t survive after the same amount of rigorous testing, I’ll continue to use my E90 as a backup phone and wait for the next wave of flagship devices to come around.

If anyone has any questions or would like me to test anything on the N97 before I have to send it back to WOM World, please drop a comment or send me an email.

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Written by Jonathan

July 27, 2009 at 6:30 pm

29 Responses

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  1. Jonny,

    a fair and well written review overall.
    A part of me wishes I’d waited for your review before early adopting, another part of me knows that I would have bought the N97 anyway. You see I’ve used iPhones for 2 years and finally got tired of slow responses, crappy pics from the 1.3mp camera and no true multitasking. It was a recent series of business trips that led me to decide I needed something new, my 3G’s battery would die after 2 hours of conf calls, and there was all the buzz about the N97. And I fondly remembered my Psion 5MX.
    It’s taken me 5 resets, a mass memory reformatting and a reinstallation of all the apps to mass to get it to where I need it to be.
    I suspect that there is no perfect mobil today, no web surfing tool, IM, twitter, decent camera, media device that will last a full day on one charge.
    But I think Nokia seriously screwed up, another 128mb of memory would have made a huge difference and made the wait to a new Symbian OS tolerable.
    What a shame

    lichmd

    July 27, 2009 at 9:20 pm

  2. I was curious how the N97 would stand up to “heavy use” during your four U.S. tour. I have encountered (and endured) many of the “situations” describe in your review. The low internal RAM frustrates me to no end. It’s a mystery how it can drop from 27mb to 7mb. The low RAM hurts the “messenging” feature of the phone. My Blackberry saves a ton of emails. You never know when you want to refer to an email from three weeks ago. What I’m finding is how much I like the media playback functionality of the phone. Watching movies, and listening to podcasts on the phone is extremely satisfying.

    But, I still have no regrets getting this phone, although the $699 sticker price still stings from time to time. One of the reason I wanted to get the phone was to ride this wave of excitement and buzz the phone has generated. Yes, I flashed my white N97 quite conspiciously at the party…Yeah, I wanted to be one of the cool kids. Thanks for a thoughtful review, and for your energy throughout a very interesting tour. Cheers!

    John Chew

    July 27, 2009 at 11:36 pm

  3. Superb, and very realistic review Johnny. I share all of your frustrations with the N97, however, I, like the previous reply, I have now got my N97 where Im almost content with, although of course, knowing the hardware should of been a lot better. I feel compromises were made with the N97 for sure. I also feel it in my bones that Nokia will release an N97i, a device the N97 should of been. Twice the amount or RAM, and phone memory, non self harming camera scratching lens glass.

    Talking of scratches to the main camera lens glass, did any of you gugs experience this? Its fast becoming clear the N97 has a design flaw in the main camera lens cover slider, where it scratches the glass, even with very light use. There are 100’s of complaints so far about this.

    Even Vodafone in the UK have reported a 40% return rate of all N97’s they have sold.

    Checkout Nokiausers.net for a poll I posted on the design flaw. I have already been in contact with Nokia about the issue, and currently awaiting an Official statement.

    Micky

    July 28, 2009 at 6:35 am

  4. Jonny,

    As others have said, a very good review. I’m quite surprised that the N97 doesn’t live up to all the expectations heaped upon it, but your insights into the processor and memory shortcomings really show how such a promising device could be hampered by simple things. Myself, I’m still waiting with baited breath for WOMWorld to ship me my review unit, and I’m still VERY excited to be getting one, but I’ll be sure to REALLY “use the Hell out of it” as you mention in your review, and see if it comes up short in my usage.

    I’ve been VERY excited about the N97 because (on paper at least) it seems to be the melding of my two favorite Nokia phones of all time, the N958GB and the E71, being that it’s a N-Series with the great camera and multimedia features + the qwerty. I still use both devices like crazy, swapping back and forth like a madman, and the N97 was my hope to cure this madness! I had read the processor specs before,but it hadn’t dawned on me how little of an upgrade (and in some cases downgrade) the N97 was to the N95 I love.

    It will be interesting to see what you come up with in testing the Samsung. Keep us posted!

    Obsidial

    July 28, 2009 at 10:40 am

  5. Excellent review Jonny! Like the previous two posters, I’m much less of a true power user and don’t put my phone through as much heavy use as you all did during the tour. I have experienced many of the things you complain about during my time with the N97, luckily they have been few and far between though. While I enjoy my N97, its certainly not for everyone, and its certainly not as good as it could have been. Eagerly awaiting your review of the i8910, and maybe even a chance to check it out in person to see if I have the same envy of it that you found during the tour.

    martin_j001

    July 28, 2009 at 10:44 am

  6. […] the N97 is well worth perserving with and who seems enamoured of most aspects of the device, and Johnny Bruha, who found the N97 lacking in so many areas during his extended test period that the device ended up in the bin. Both reviews are well worth […]

  7. […] the N97 is well worth perserving with and who seems enamoured of most aspects of the device, and Johnny Bruha, who found the N97 lacking in so many areas during his extended test period that the device ended up in the bin. Both reviews are well worth […]

  8. Hey can you compare PDF files on the E90 Vs. the N97. I am very interested to find out how they both compare as a PDF reader especially with large PDF files like one on this link (http://www.cisco.com/en/US/prod/collateral/routers/ps5855/prod_brochure0900aecd8019dc1f.pdf).

    Your help would be greatly appreciated.

    pablo

    July 28, 2009 at 4:24 pm

  9. I’m feeling the same frustration with the N97 – I even went back to using my loaner E75 for the past few days.

    But the i8910 has its own set of faults!

    So I’m still looking for the perfect device 🙂

    tnkgrl

    July 28, 2009 at 5:07 pm

  10. […] up, Jonny Bruha of Thoughts on S60 has posted a thoughtful, well-rounded N97 review. Jon was one of the four bloggers on the N97 24/7 USA tour, and he knows what he’s talking […]

  11. Good review…
    the only part i disagree with is battery life.
    im a heavy user (always connected to wifi all day) and i can get 1 3/4 days out of my N97…
    having followed all the battery tips i find that people regularly make one mistake….they charge the phone turned on. suggestion: charge your phone while its turned off, then turn it on and it will continue to charge…doing this 3-4 times of the initital battery drain actually maximises the “potency” of battery life….

    RobertH

    July 29, 2009 at 6:59 am

  12. […] up, Jonny Bruha of Thoughts on S60 has posted a thoughtful, well-rounded N97 review. Jon was one of the four bloggers on the N97 24/7 USA tour, and he knows what he’s talking […]

  13. I agree with all previous comments. This n97 is clearly a deception. A deception for Nokia and his users. Too many bugs, too slow. How Nokia can sell a phone like this? I think this device will have bad effect on their
    brand image.
    Nokia have to update quickly this phone:
    -take some space on 32 go to allocate it to RAM
    -fixe all bugs.

    and cross fingers to avoid boycott…

    live

    July 30, 2009 at 11:07 am

  14. Exceleent review,

    The first review i’ve seen that really points out all the weak areas of the N97 !

    I share all your frustrations and have all the mentioned problems, I would like to add some other problems found during my one month usage:

    * The signal reception is very poor !!! the phone gets 3 bars of signal reception where my 5800 and n95 gets 5 bars !!! when I go to a place with boarderline signal the N97 will loose the signal completely while the 5800 and N95 still can get 2 bars !!!( I put them all at the same place) !! when in open areas or places with good signal strength, the N97 will show full signal reception which will give false impression till you go to a closed/weak signal area to discover the truth ! I sent the phone back to Nokia care and they couldn’t find anything wrong with the device !!! Can you check the reception for me ?

    * When opening the Web browser, the N97 will close all opened applications including the Widgets (Facebook, Accuweather…Etc) in order to save some RAM and once you exit the browser it will re-open all the Widgets again but you will have to open any other closed applications manually !!! (SO WERE IS THE MULTI TASKING HERE !)
    * If you open the Web browser and browse any Blog site with some images, the available free RAM will go down to around 4 MB ! thats why the phone become unstable !
    * The Transition effects are not the same as the ones Nokia shown on their Demo N97 in Barcelona ! if you enable the transition effects the phone will lose another 5 MB of RAM and the Web browser will display mid size blog sites without images !!! if you keep refreshing the page and closing-Re Openinig the Web browser for three to four times it will show all contents with images ! but I discovered the the phone has disabled the transitions effects in order to do the required task !!! you need to restart the phone in order to get the transitions working again !!!
    The famous new Nokia Messaging doesnt have the option to be installed on the Mass storage !!! and NO option to save emails and attachement to the Mass Memory !!!
    I uploaded 4 GB of songs the the mass memory and after two weeks of usage I end up with 3 MB free Phone Memory !! after clearing the Web Browser Privacy Data it went up to 20 MB and thts it !! I think copying songs to the Mass Memory affected the phone memory in some way or another !!(May be the phone memory will be used to map the uploaded songs !)

    *No option to save the Web Browser Cash to the Mass memory !!

    Once again, please test the reception if you still have the phone ! thanks

    Ahmad

    July 31, 2009 at 6:48 am

  15. too many bugs? too slow? poor battery life?
    What kind of N97 did you get? A Chinese Fake, maybe.

    I DO NOT agree at all with this review and some of the comments. I’m very satisfied with my N97. It’s the best phone Nokia I tested (and I tested many) since the N95 8GB. Period.

    gaspar

    July 31, 2009 at 8:40 am

  16. @gaspar

    if you have a n97 without bug, slow interface that mean Nokia has made a N97 only for you! you are a lucky man 🙂
    browse the web and you will see that many users have problems with N97.

    live

    July 31, 2009 at 10:55 am

  17. When I read such absurd reviews about N97, I wonder if I have the same device they are writing about.
    I am pretty sure, this bloggers are being paying by Apple. Put N97 in a trash is something beyond the decent world

    Jorge Astrain

    July 31, 2009 at 4:46 pm

    • Does anyone want to link Jorge to the N97 24/7 coverage? Apparently he missed the part about WOM World flying me all over the US to trial this device on their dime.

      Jonathan

      July 31, 2009 at 5:37 pm

  18. @jorge

    below you will see two bugs i had with n97. i made a long video about radio crashes (radio turn off after one minute). i will try to put in on the web.
    we don’t live in a Bisounours World!


    and the second picture

    i think nokia sell us a device with bêta version. boycott this phone until nokia have fixed all bugs.

    live

    August 1, 2009 at 3:19 am

  19. My N95-1 at v11 had more problems than N97 has. N96 was useless in areas like wi-fi, Bluetooth, besides memory full while browsing and rebooting 10 times a day. No one post something like this. I do agree the software is not matured, but for sure N97 doesn’t deserve IMO to go into the trash

    Jorge Astrain

    August 2, 2009 at 11:37 pm

    • I meant N95 not N96

      Jorge Astrain

      August 2, 2009 at 11:40 pm

  20. I tried for the first time the radio, at first no one broadcasting was found, I rebooted the phone and all the broadcasting were found, and I was listening music for a while without problems. Nice sound

    Jorge Astrain

    August 3, 2009 at 12:07 am

  21. here you can see the radio bug. sorry for quality but i recorded it with an 5800.

    live

    August 3, 2009 at 7:21 am

  22. Thanks for the great review, Im currently sticking with my nokia 5800 though!

    Nokia 5800 Applications

    August 3, 2009 at 10:54 am

  23. to be honest i think in todays day and age you are expecting a bit too much. even a laptops battery would suffer. as for the email there is an option to transfer it to mass mem. my n97 used to crash until i upgraded to v11 firmware now its stable.

    lee

    September 21, 2009 at 6:58 am

  24. also for web browsing i use opera mini which is installed on mass mem. probably the reason why ive never had probs is because i dont use the phones own browser.

    lee

    September 21, 2009 at 7:03 am

  25. SO what did Nokia make out of your report? I remeber this tour getting announced but it sota quickly faded off.
    cheers

    mad@nokia

    October 17, 2009 at 8:39 pm

  26. Personally, i have found my 3 month old N97 to be a reasonable device. But this is only after about 6 weeks of tweaking to create an N95 with a touch screen and large mass memory. Nokia really needs to get its software devision up to speed if it wants to compete!

    James

    October 18, 2009 at 7:15 am

  27. Wow thats a cool review, I found my nokia n97 to be a very good phone, the only thing that lets it down though is its lack of apps in comparison to the iPhone!

    nokia 5800 applications

    February 24, 2010 at 2:28 pm


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